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Monday, September 21, 2015

Road Trip: On The Prowl at Tiger Leaping Gorge

I'd jumped the gun a bit by writing about where to stay at Tiger Leaping Gorge before documenting how I got there and what I saw when I arrived at this amazing slice of Yunnan topography - linear timelines are not my forte. So here's finally a photo and phone-cam video essay on my Tiger Leaping Gorge adventures from this past summer.
So this was my first real sight of the Jingsha River as our bus turned into the middle trail (and the only roadway in and out of) Tiger Leaping Gorge.  I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed after all that I'd heard about this place.  It just looked to me like a giant tributary, one of many, may brown sludgy ones I've seen in my travels to China. Yes, oh ye of little faith and all that sort of thing.
At this "entrance" to Tiger Leaping Gorge, our bus stopped to let most of my fellow bus mates who wished to hike the upper trail disembark.  The Naxi Guest House on the left photo is a good place to stock up on last minute snacks and drinks, as well as, you know, loo breaks.
The rest of us on the bus - all four of us not-so-intrepid random wannabe hikers - continued on our bumpy ride on the middle trail/roadway. We were flanked by the sheer cliffs of Haba Snow Mountain on our left, and the Jingsha River sometimes uncomfortably too close on the right.  The video below is a better illustration on what it's like being in a vehicle careening around next to the deepest gorge in the world.  Definitely not for the vertigo inclined.
After a semi-harrowing but exhilarating bus ride, we were dropped off at Tina's Guest House. Incidentally, it's a 20-minute ride from the Gorge's entrance to this point, which would take those hikers in the earlier photo two days on the upper trail to get to this same place.  From there, it's a leisurely one-kilometer walk to Tibet Guest House where we were booked to stay for a couple of nights.
This is the sight that greeted us more than halfway to Tibet Guest House.  What you're seeing there is Walnut Village (yes, they do grow walnuts there) where a couple of trails leading down to and near the Gorge begins/ends.
Occasionally, we shared the roadway with herds of goats, chickens, dogs, and occupied pig sties.
After checking into Tibet Guest House and determining that we were ok for oxygen levels (we knew we were fine as we weren't gasping for air after each sentence,) we decided to take one of the trails down to the Gorge.

If you can believe it, this is the lower part of the lower trail of Tiger Leaping Gorge.  And yet, we were still nowhere near the river's edge.
More gawking at the magnificent view.

So yeah, we didn't hike the upper trail of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The one that everyone is supposed to do. To tell the truth, I had neither the faith (nor stamina) to tackle that trail's infamous and ominous-sounding "28 Bends" on high-altitude limited oxygen levels - so that's why we opted to traipse along this lower trail in hopes of getting splash-close to the rushing water.  No such luck, although it made for some awe-inspiring images and rip-roaring acoustics even at a few hundred feet above the Jingsha River.
Taking a breather a couple of hours into our hike and wishing we weren't such amateurs who had neglected to bring along bottled water.  That climb back up to the middle trail was a doozy; it was only a kilometer up as the crow flies, but it took us more than an hour to wheeze and gasp our way up, about four to five steps at a time.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is by no means a massive place - it is about 30 kilometers from end to end, with guest houses and farms along that two-lane paved roadway.  But it made for a lot of great walks for the three days and two nights we were there.
This is one of the trails I explored.  That's me in that tiny black speck in the middle/left of the photo.

On the second day, we hired the son of Tibet Guest House's owner Mr. Lu to take us (plus two fellow guests) on a driving excursion to nearby Haba Village and the famed Bai Shui Tai or White Water Terraces.  They're not far from Walnut Village of Tiger Leaping Gorge, but we pretty much stretched it out to nearly seven hours due to the many, many stops we took to take in the sights (and deplete our cameras' memory cards.)  By the way, as you can already tell, the infrastructure in these semi-remote locations in China is second to none.  The roads threading through the villages and mountain passes were all smoothly paved and there were multiple signs from mobile service providers that proclaimed the strength of the mobile/date bandwidth connections.
Overlooking Haba Village, just outside Tiger Leaping Gorge (which you can barely see in the far distance.)

View of the Haba Snow Mountain and valley below.

This is at around the 30 km mark of Tiger Leaping Gorge, enroute towards Haba Village and Haba Mountain Pass in the far distance.

Map of Tiger Leaping Gorge.  We drove in from Lijiang from the southwest, went in the northeast direction, and stayed at Tibet Guest House at Walnut Village (or Garden) at around the 26km mark.
One more time, but with feeling.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Hotel Review: Tibet Guest House, Tiger Leaping Gorge

I just knew I had to visit Tiger Leaping Gorge the very first moment I heard its name.  I mean, that fantastical cool moniker triggered my wanderlust and conjured up an ancient mythical Far Eastern land coupled with a fiercely aggro nature vibe.  And so it was one sunny week this July that I finally made it to this fabled canyon that, at 3,790 meters (12,434 feet) from river to mountain peak, is the deepest in the world.

Flanked by the mighty and poetically named Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (on the mostly uninhabitable side and standing at 5,600m/18,360 feet) and Haba Snow Mountain (5,396m/17,700 feet,) the gorge where the swift-flowing Jingsha River and frothing rapids spans - a major tributary of the Yangtze  River - is a lengthy 15km/9.3 miles.  According to, the river is naturally divided into three sections, the first of which is the narrowest at only 30 meters (33 yards) wide and has a rock perched on the edge.  An ancient legend claims that a tiger used this rock as its stepping stone so it could leap across from one side of the gorge to the other, which is how the place got its name.  As the river enters the middle section, it drops another 100 meters (330 feet) and its flow rate increases to an amazing speed. Here the thunderous rushing waters slam into sharp, large rocks and crash down into the river forming swirling whirlpools.

As it's located only about 100 km from Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan province, this scenic canyon is a popular destination for tourists and avid hikers from all over the world.  This is evidenced by the well-trodden trails, endless blog posts, and proliferation of guest houses populating the only roadway in and out of the gorge.  
Most of the posts and articles I've read would invariably mention one guest house in particular (Tina's) as it sits at the most obvious location for hikers descending from a two-day hike from the Upper Section trail; however the reviews have not always been positive.  We decided to skip it and head to one that is slightly farther along the roadway but has more glowing reviews from previous guests: Tibet Guest House at Walnut Garden Village.

Now, there are two ways to get to Tibet Guest House from Tina's.  One can call ahead to the guest house's affable owner Mr. Lu for a pick up in his mini van, or one can just start hoofing it along the narrow roadway for about a kilometer or so.  That's what we did as the weather was fine and it was a very pleasant walk (bonus: there is generally little traffic along the road as most of the hikers and tourists stop at Tina's which is around the halfway point of Tiger Leaping Gorge,) and you get take in this incredible scenery all around you.  And not that I needed any reminders, but that constant dull roar of the rushing river a couple of thousand feet below totally grounded me to the fact that I was in a beautiful, remote part of China that's so jarringly different from the mega super cities I have generally associated with the country.

About a few hundred meters from Tibet Guest House, we rounded a corner and saw this incredible view in front of us: working walnut farms and rice terraces line the sloping cliffs towards the lower section of the gorge and the river below.

Finally, after taking multiple stops and hundreds of digital photos, we arrived at Tibet Guest House.  It's run by Mr. Lu who is a schoolteacher, and his wife; the guest house also functions as a three-generational family home for the Lus and their extended family (parents, siblings, children.)   There are clean rooms with single and double beds for very reasonable rates.  As it was low season, (we were only the second set of guests there,) we had our pick of rooms so we chose the corner one upstairs for RMB100 yuan (USD15) per night.  Oh and they only accept cash.

The photo on the top left shows the hallway leading up to our corner room. The one on the right is the exterior of the guest house with our room on the second floor.  The owners provide complimentary shuttle rides within a 3 kilometer radius of the guest house, and they can also arrange - for a fee - transport to nearby towns.

The room was clean, had its own very-large bathroom (I'm not a big fan of shared facilities) and a huge bonus (especially for me as a hotelier) is the pristine white bed linens.  Too often, I've encountered more floral-patterned velour and faded scratchy canvas bedspreads at local inns than I can care to bring to the forefront of my memory banks, so getting to sleep between the sheets at Tibet Guest House was a true luxury.  Bit of a warning about the mattresses though; like most that I've experienced in China, these ones are similarly on the too-firm side.  Also if you're there in the summer, it may get a wee bit warm in the evening but that's only because we dare not open the windows as there were just too many flying bugs out there to make for a restful night's sleep.  Otherwise, it was a comfortable stay.

After we checked in, there were more photos to be taken from the terrace outside our room.  Honestly, there was just jaw-dropping scenery from all angles.
The senior Mr. and Mrs. Lu out and about on the terrace of their home/guest house.

We decided to pick our jaws off the floor, take a break and went downstairs to the main dining terrace for lunch.  Again, most of the reviews I've read have raved about the food so I was looking forward to some good nosh.  Menus are thankfully in English, and there was a substantial section on home made noodles with locally sourced farm fresh ingredients so that's what I had: a soupy bowl with scrambled egg, diced tomatoes and pork, with a Tsingtao beer chaser as the appetizer.

It couldn't have been just the mountain air that made the noodles (and beer) taste so amazing.  In fact, pretty much everything we ordered during the two days we stayed there were exemplary.  Including the cooked-to-perfection omelette below that's bursting with fresh vegetables (carrots, radish, onions, and cabbage) inside......

......and these dishes of stir-fry bittergourd and egg, and fried pork noodles....

.....and more soupy noodles with lettuce, carrots and tomatoes....

.....and this banana chocolate crepe, plus my new found discovery: baba (a fluffy, chewy flatbread that's a close cousin of the roti prata) that's liberally doused with honey.  Total and utter heaven on a plate.

I loved baba so much and I couldn't get enough of it.  So I ventured into the sunny kitchen on  my second day and asked Mrs. Lu if I could watch (and photograph) her making my order.  She thought the whole thing was a hoot and very cheerfully went through the motions from beginning to the delicious end.

She already had some dough (white flour and dry yeast) made earlier that morning, so she just pinched some off, and started kneading, rolling it to saucepan ready flatness.

Then she poured cooking (corn) oil to a pre-heated pan, and just when it was hot enough, she placed the flat doughy discs in it.
Due to the high heat from the oil, large bubbles immediate form on the dough within seconds, and Mrs Lu flipped the disc over to cook the other side.

After less than a minute in the pan, Mrs Lu placed the baba on a plate to cool.  She then used her chopsticks to drizzle honey on the flatbread, and voila, another divine culinary masterpiece was ready.

So with our full bellies, weary limbs and happy hearts, we settled in for another long, languid day and night at Tibet Guest House at Tiger Leaping Gorge with our cup of tea and this view. Tomorrow there would be more hiking trails to explore, waterfalls to cross, (flatbreads to eat) and memories to be made in this majestic land.


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